Winning at Any Cost

Recently my doctor prescribed me some oral steroids for some arthritis I have in my elbows and knees. As I took my first tablet, I jokingly remarked to my wife, “Well, I just blew my chance to compete in the Olympics!” But, ironically, later that day, I learned that maybe I hadn’t. The news broke that Kamila Valieva, the Russian 15-year-old phenom figure skater, had tested positive for a banned heart medication but had not been banned from competing in the Olympics.

It seems no matter how hard we try, controversy surrounds Olympic figure skating. We first had the infamous injury to Nancy Kerrigan’s knee by Tonya Harding’s handlers immediately before the 1994 Winter Olympics. Then, in the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Canadian pair skaters Jamie Salé and David Pelletier appeared to have easily won the gold over the Russian skaters. But the judges saw it differently. Or did they? The day after the competition, the judge from France claimed she was pressured to pick the Russians over the Canadians. In a not-so-satisfying compromise, the IOC ended up awarding both pairs with a gold medal.

And now we have Kamila-gate.

Former U.S. Olympic gold medalist skater Tara Lipinski said what many of us were thinking: “I have so many mixed emotions. One of those emotions is I have enormous empathy for Kamila. She is just 15 years old. Clearly, the adults around her have failed her, and now she is dealing with their decision-making, and those consequences are now on her shoulders—the weight of the world. But again, she should not be skating in this event after a positive test.”

Johnny Weir, the former gold medalist skater from Canada, echoed Lipinski: “There is no gray area when it comes to doping. If you fail a drug test, you cannot compete.”

But the Court of Arbitration for Sports disagreed, allowing Valieva to continue competing. Sarah Hirschland, the CEO of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, responded to that decision by stating. “We are disappointed by the message this decision sends…. Athletes have the right to know they are competing on a level playing field. Unfortunately, today that right is being denied. This appears to be another chapter in the systemic and pervasive disregard for clean sport by Russia.”

That systemic and pervasive disregard led to one of the most fantastic examples of a distinction without a difference. The IOC banned Russia from the Olympics, but Russian athletes are still allowed to compete under the banner of the Russian Olympic Committee.

I wondered how we got to this place in sports history, so I naturally turned to movies. The Oscar-winning documentary, Icarus,[i] reveals how the Russians doped their way to 13 gold medals (33 overall) in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. It was the most gold medals and total medals ever won by Russia in a Winter Olympics. Here is the trailer for Icarus:

When I heard the decision to allow Kamila Valieva to continue competing, I thought of Sha’Carri Richardson, the U.S. sprinter who could not compete in the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 because she tested positive with THC (marijuana). Richardson took her punishment with honesty and grace, explaining her mental turmoil during the Olympic trials over her mother’s death led her to marijuana to ease her grief and anxiety. But where is the honesty and grace from the Russians? I am still waiting for an explanation from Valieva or her handlers of how the banned substance ended up in Valieva. Valieva’s only comment since the controversy broke: “These days have been very difficult for me. I’m happy, but I’m tired emotionally.” Valieva went on to say the entire process had taught her that adult life “can be unfair to some extent.”  

The banned substance, trimetazidine, increases blood flow to the heart, improving endurance. Is that a possible reason Valieva could perform so many quadruple jumps in her program? On the other hand, there is no evidence that marijuana enhances anyone’s physical abilities. So, of course, we ban Richardson but allow Valieva to compete. Go figure. But karma, I suppose, caught up with Valieva in the end. She fell twice in her free skate program, dropping from first to fourth and off the Olympic podium.    

Before and after Kamila-gate, I have often tried to answer this question: If you win by cheating, do you really win? How satisfying can a win be when you know you had an unfair advantage over the competition? But sometimes, athletes will go to any lengths to win. We are willing to win at any cost, even if we have to cheat to do so. We assume others are cheating, so our only chance of winning is also to cheat.

Sadly, winning at any cost is not limited to athletics. Unfortunately, we see the same occurring in almost every phase of our dog-eat-dog existence. Fortune, fame, and power seem to be our primary motivators, and we are sometimes willing to do almost anything to achieve them. Governments try to regulate fairness, but most of the laws we enact tend to punish the majority who play by the rules, while those that don’t find creative ways to circumvent those laws.

The documentary Downfall: The Case Against Boeing[ii] traces how Boeing, after its merger with McDonnell Douglas, changed from a company primarily concerned with safety to one more concerned with profits. And that change of culture led to two plane crashes within five months that resulted in the deaths of 346 persons. Here is the trailer for the film, which you can see on Netflix:

Rep. Peter DeFazio, Democrat from Oregon and the chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee of Congress, said of Boeing: “In the 21st century, to lose two planes within months of each other, and kill so many people, it just never, ever, ever should have happened. The safety culture at Boeing fell apart. It was corrupted from the top down by pressures from Wall Street, plain and simple.”

How did the company react when the truth came out that its 747 Max plane had known design defects that led to these crashes? Boeing’s Board of Directors asked for the resignation of Dennis Muilenburg, the CEO, two months after he testified before Congress and Boeing’s efforts to hide the plane’s design defects became apparent. But he left with stock and pension awards worth 62 million dollars. Sixty-two million dollars! And to me, that’s the problem with corporate America. You can be behind the deaths of almost 350 people and still walk away with a payoff of over $60 million.

I recently watched an interview of Joseph Gordon Leavitt about his latest role as Travis Kalanick, The CEO of Uber, in the upcoming TV series Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber. Leavitt described Travis Kalanick’s core business Value No. 1 as “Always be hustling, even if it includes some ethically questionable behavior.”

When asked how we can change people to act more ethically, Leavitt said, “When a company is prioritizing profits over everything and doesn’t mind who they have to step on or negatively impact in order to produce those profits, you’re going to keep getting companies doing harm. We keep asking, ‘How do we fix Facebook? How do we fix this or that?’ Until we have different incentives where they can care about more than shareholder value, they’re not going to fix any of these problems because it is not good business.”

The film, I, Tonya,[iii] chronicles the rivalry between Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan surrounding the 1994 Winter Olympics. In the court case following the assault on Nancy Kerrigan, the judge punishes Harding where it hurt the most. Here is the scene from the movie:

If we want to stop the Russians (and others) from cheating at the Olympics, we must punish those who cheat consistently by banning them from competing. Likewise, if we want businesses to act more ethically, we must punish them where it hurts the most—their bottom lines.

Let’s support those athletes who can win with class and businesses that stand for more than just profit. Let’s stand with former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart by teaching our children that Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.”

And may we live that way as well.

[i] Icarus:

  • Production Companies:  Alex Productions, Chicago Media Project, and Diamond Docs
  • Director: Bryan Fogel
  • Screenwriters: Bryan Fogel, Mark Monroe, and John Bertain
  • Starring: Bryan Fogel, Dave Zabriskie, and Don Catlin
  • Release date: August 4, 2017

[ii] Downfall: The Case Against Boeing:

  • Production Companies: Imagine Documentaries, Moxie Films and Moxie
  • Director: Rory Kennedy
  • Screenwriters: Mark Bailey and Keven McAlester
  • Starring: Andy Pasztor and John Fantasia
  • Release date: February 18, 2022

[iii] I, Tonya:

  • Production Companies: AI-Film, Clubhouse Pictures, and Georgia Film, Music and Digital Entertainment Office
  • Director: Craig Gillespie
  • Screenwriter: Steven Rogers
  • Starring: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, and Allison Janney
  • Release date: January 19, 2018

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